They sound like thunder. When the clouds open and the rain pours down, it hits the glass windows. Usually, it just sounds like when Auner taps his fingernails against the glass, except when it thunders. When it thunders, it sounds like a roaring. I am not scared of the thunder, but I am scared of the guards when they stomp in all at once, so loud they sound like thunder.
Marta, she’s the main guard. None of the other kids know or remember her name, although there are nicknames for her. “Giraffe” because she is very tall; she cannot walk through the door without bending her head sideways, “Noodle” because she is thin like a noodle in our soup, and “Baston” because the black, metal baton is always close to her. The baton strikes any time. We all know most of the rules. But, sometimes, new rules get made that we don’t know about until we break them. Once, Baston saw me looking at her. I watch the guard because I can sometimes get clues about their moods by watching their faces. Baston’s lips press real tight together when she is not happy; if I see her lips pressed together, I tell the others to be quiet, don’t look at her. Be a ghost. I wish I was a ghost; people can’t see ghosts.
It’s not Baston that grabs my arm, but Chimp. I don’t know his real name, even the other guards call him Chimp. His front two teeth are really big, and he’s got a scrunched up nose. Chimp is the scariest person I’ve ever known. Auner screeches, the new boy, Ekko, jerks his arm and gets back handed so hard he falls against the soiled mattress. I look at Alina. Alina flails an arm, but does not resist. Some kids cry; some scream and are quickly silenced. The room that’s always quiet sounds so loud it is like hard rain falling. The thunder comes soon.
Kids are pushing against me as we shuffle in a crowd to the back. Baston and Chimp meet three of the other guards as we walk down the drafty hallway to, and through, the kitchen to the back door of the building. The sun blinds me; I squint, my chin dropping against my neck. I haven’t been outside in a long time.
“What-what—“ Ekko doesn’t sound strong. His eyes, with the long, black lashes, are wide as can be, and I can tell he is scared.
Alina scratches her arms, tilting her head back toward the sun. I look away from it because it’s bright; Alina, who sees only shades of light, looks towards it. Auner’s screech makes me turn my head just in time to see a water hose spray his naked body. I start shifting my weight from one foot to the other; Ekko stares silently in horror, biting his lip, Alina starts repeating, “Water! Water! That’s water!” to herself.
The hose turns on me before I am ready, before I even know it’s left the other kids. Water so cold it feels like ice strikes me on the arm and the legs with such force it feels like I’m being punched. The guards shout at kids to be still, quiet. I hate myself because I can feel Chimp’s eyes watching me. “Legs apart!” His order is not new; everybody gets hosed off between the legs. It is where a lot of us are the most dirty. The cold makes me shake, the pressure of the water bruises my skin. Water sprays me in the face, going in my mouth and up my nose. I sputter it out, hating the sounds of Alina crying and Auner’s squeals, which are longer, but weaker.
By the time the dried poop and pee and dirt are power pressured off me, I fear I’m drowning. The hose moves on, though, and I stand shivering. My teeth chatter by the time we are herded back into the room with the beds. The mattresses are flipped. The guards leave.
I wrap my arms around my belly, tuck my chin into my knees and listen to my bones chattering. The guards told us to be quiet, but there isn’t anyone talking. Until the lights go out. The lights go out sometimes. When the lights go out, the heat goes off.
Auner cries. When I look at him, he and Ekko lay back-to-back, like me and Alina. I uncurl my legs and pull Alina’s hand. Carefully, we move from our bed into the boys’. It is crowded, but I lay beside Auner, his face burrowing into my neck. Ekko and Alina huddle together.
“My fi—fin—fingers.” Ekko stumbles. His fingers are cold. I move to sit up. I am the only one sitting in the room. Everyone else is huddled next to someone. The sounds of crying whisper through the room. Number 118, Katrine, she isn’t making any noise. She is very, very quiet. A few others stare blankly into the dark. All shiver.
It doesn’t get too cold fast. First, it gets silent. Without the hum of the heating unit, the only noise is each other. Auner stops crying. The shivering stops for a little bit. I breathe out through my mouth, testing the air. I cannot see my breath yet, so I know it is not as cold as it will be.
I have been here the longest. I don’t remember coming, but I’ve heard stories about how I got here. I used to think it was better being here than out there; I don’t know if that’s really true, though, because I don’t remember being out there.
Ekko curls his hand into a fist, biting his knuckles when the rain comes. It splashes on the windowpanes and fills the room with sound. “Do-don’t li—like the ra-rain.” He moves his palms over his ears, rocking back and forth. Thunder makes him jump.
“118 hasn’t quaked in a long time.” 94, Charlotte, says. She shares the bed with Katrine. No one answers her. I breathe out. I cannot see my breath. “Rain’s not scary. I like thunder and rain,” I say softly. “One time, there was a man and a woman who lived by themselves. They didn’t have anyone with them except their little girl. They were farmers; they grew squash and corn and beans in a garden.” Ekko moves his hands off his ears; through the fading light, I see Katrine’s eyes move toward us. Alina bounces: she loves it when I tell stories. Auner stills. “One day, they were working outside when it started to rain. Huge lightning bolts crashed to the ground. Some of them were so big and so strong it made cracks on the ground.
The man yelled to the woman and the little girl to come inside. They took off running. When they got to the house, the saw that the little girl wasn’t with them. They thought she’d gone to the barn because it was closer. The barn was a huge building where they kept horses and other animals. When the rain stopped, they went to see, but she wasn’t there either. The woman was very sad. She said, ‘The Thunder People have taken her away from us.’
This was true. While she’d been running, following the woman and the man, she’d become very dizzy, and she was surrounded by a heavy mist. She felt herself carried up into the sky. When she woke up, she saw a little man – the one who had brought her to the strange land.
The man led her into a straw house with an older man sat. The older man was the leader. He was mad that the little man brought her to their land. The son wanted to keep her because he loved her; the girl loved him too, even though she missed her family. The leader let her stay in their land, but he made the little man return to earth to bring back food for the girl because she didn’t eat the same things Thunder People ate.
The girl loved being with the Thunder People. The man doted on her and took care of her. Even though she missed the woman and the man on Earth, she was never lonely. After a year of living there, the girl asked if she could return to the earth to see the people she’d left behind. She was granted permission. They got to earth by riding a lightning bolt; thunder is the sound of the lightning bolt breaking through the sky to earth. It makes the man and the woman very happy now because, every time they hear thunder, they know they’re about to see their little girl again.”
“What’s it like in the Thunder People world?” Ekko asks.
“Oh, it’s very different. It’s bright all the time, and warm. They have lots of rivers for fresh water, and they make everything – the roads and the houses – out of gold.”
“What’s gold?” someone asks.
“Shiny stuff. Oh, and they have lots to do there. Everybody has clothes.”
“Do they hose people down?”
“No. They don’t have to because no one ever gets dirty.”
“I wish – wish we were there now,” Alina says as the thunder crashes outside, and lightning breaks up the darkness.
I breathe from my mouth. A wispy fog floats out in front of me.
Katrine closes her eyes.